Telephone

After reading Telephone, I’ve found myself wondering why I don’t hear more about Percival Everett’s writing. I was introduced to his work through the 2018 Tournament of Books, where So Much Blue competed, and then I heard nothing more about him until Telephone was selected for this year’s conversation. He’s written more than 20 books and is considered by some to be a major American novelist, but his books stay under the radar (at least under my radar). It’s too bad because he’s a good writer, and Telephone is a very good book, even without the big gimmick surrounding its publication. (More on that later.)

The narrator of Telephone is Zack Wells, a paleobiologist with a kind of dull but pretty okay life, until his 12-year-old daughter starts having what looks like seizures. At the same time, he finds a message in the pocket of a used jacket he bought online — “help me” in Spanish. So he’s got a possible crisis in front of him and a possible crisis far away, all as life and work, with all their typical dramas continue plodding on.

One of the things I liked about this book is that Everett tells a clear and straightforward, but emotionally complex story that is peppered with little extras that readers can choose to pursue or not. For instance, one chapters includes the codes for chess moves between sections and another German sayings. I’ve gathered from the small amount of reading I’ve done about the book that these are often significant, but they can also be easily ignored if you just enjoy the story and the writing, which was the case for me. The rabbit hole was there if I wanted it, but I was disinclined to go down it. And that worked out just fine.

Another big rabbit hole is that the book was published in three separate versions, all with slight variations to the story. The biggest change that I’m aware of comes at the end, although I understand that there are some other, smaller differences throughout the text. The idea, I think, is that no two readers experience a book in the same way, and once it is in the reader’s head, it is that reader’s experience. And when two readers try to talk about the book together, they may find that they have entirely different perceptions of how the book works. It’s like a game of telephone, where the author speaks, the reader speaks, and the message at the end is altered. Everett is making that difference literal.

As it happens, I ended up through an ordering glitch with two copies of the book, each a different version (you can tell by looking at the compasses on the cover or the color of the logo on the spine). I did look at the different endings, and they were really different, with one of them pretty dark and the other almost a sigh of relief. I didn’t look further into the differences because, to be honest, I don’t care. It is sort of a gimmick, and although I find it interesting as a way of getting readers to think about how subtle differences affect their experience of a book, I was perfectly content with the experience I had.

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Memorial

The relationship between Mike and Ben, the main characters in Bryan Washington’s Memorial, seems to have come to a turning point. They’ve lived together for years, and they love each other, but do they really get each other? Is their relationship made to last? How do you know when it’s time to move on?

It all comes to a head when Mike’s mother, Mitsuko, suddenly arrives from Osaka, at the same time Mike decides to go to Osaka to see his dying father, who he’s been estranged from for years. So that leaves Ben at home alone with a strange woman, while his family is trying to urge him to mend fences with his own father.

One thing I like about this book is the way it treats the core relationship. Ben is a Black man in a relationship with a Japanese-American man, and, although their race and sexuality matter, they are not the central features of the relationship. These are two people in love, but also in conflict a lot of the time. They fight a lot and have a lot of sex. (The descriptions of sex are some of the most explicit I’ve come across involving two men, yet it’s treated almost matter-of-factly, as a totally normal part of the relationship because of course it is.) Whether any of this is right for the long term is not clear to them or to the reader.

That ambiguity at times made it hard for me to know what I was supposed to be rooting for. For Mike to come back from Japan? For Ben to leave Mike for the guy he met at the day-care where he works? It made for a sometimes frustrating reading experience, but I think that’s the point. Mike and Ben could be a good couple, but they could also be fine apart. Trying to make big monumental decisions when either option could be okay (or not) is frustrating.

I also liked the book’s sense of place in the sections about Houston. I’ve never been to Houston and know little about it, but the level of detail felt authentic. I’ve gathered from other reviews that it gets Houston. I hope that it does. Osaka, on the other hand, did not come alive to me. In fact, the whole section that took place in Osaka seemed too long and somewhat monotonous. Maybe Mike just isn’t as likable. Or maybe it showed that if you leave home, you take your problems with you, and Mike took his sense of aimlessness to Osaka.

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Shuggie Bain

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart won the Booker Prize last year and is one of the contenders for the Tournament of Books. And it is bleak. A lot of the TOB books are bleak this year, but this one is especially so because there’s almost no lightness or weirdness or anything else to temper the fact that this is a story of a kid who is getting hurt again and again and again by the person he loves most in the world.

The book begins with a teenage Shuggie, living on his own in Glasgow, but then it quickly goes back to his early childhood, when his mother takes Shuggie and his brother and sister from Glasgow tenement where she lives with her parents to live with Shuggie’s father, the cab driver Shug Bain. Unfortunately, Shug has other ideas, and as soon as he drops Agnes and the kids off, he goes to live with another girlfriend. And Agnes turns to alcohol.

The thing about Agnes is that she tries, but in all the wrong ways. She strives to look beautiful, which makes her popular with men but not so much the neighbor women who could be a support network. And she gets off the drink sometimes, but never for very long. It is quite clearly an addition. And I found it hard to be angry with Agnes for that reason. I was more angry at the situation. Keeping readers’ right on that line between blaming and sympathizing with Agnes is one of the things that Stuart does really well.

Agnes and her addiction is not the only source of pain for Shuggie. He is also bullied in school, largely because he’s effeminate, and the boys quickly begin mocking him for being gay before he even has a sense of his sexuality. His father and sister both pretty much abandon him. And even when Agnes is seeing better days, money is always tight. But Agnes’s alcoholism is at the root of a lot of his most consistent and devastating pain.

I would like to tell you that there are moments of lightness and joy, but there really aren’t. Or when there are, they are so fleeting as to scarcely seem to exist. Even Shuggie’s love for his mother is spoiled by the way it keeps him tied to her. I would point to the moments of tenderness shown between Shuggie and his mother as bits of hope, but it’s Shuggie showing all the tenderness, and the fact that he’s put in that situation makes it almost too sad to see.

Posted in Fiction | 6 Comments

Her Body and Other Parties

I have a much higher tolerance for weirdness and experimentation in short stories than in novels. In fact, I tend to prefer my short stories to be a little weird, whether in the story itself or in the way the story is told. And these eight stories by Carmen Maria Machado are just my kind of thing.

I’m not going to discuss all of them, except to say that they all, in one way or another, deal with women’s bodies and women’s desires. These are women who want sex or safety or even just themselves, and their bodies are messy and beautiful and full of life and death.

Most of the stories are fairly traditional in form. “The Husband Stitch,” for instance, feels exactly like an old-fashioned horror story. But all of them have something weird going on within them. It may be a haunting (multiple hauntings in this book) or a dream or a mystery. Whatever it is, it’s going to be strange.

There are a couple of stories that played with form. “The Inventory” is a list of the narrator’s lovers, but also something more that becomes clear at the end. And then there’s “Especially Heinous,” a retelling of 12 seasons of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit based solely on the episode titles. It goes in some directions that the actual show does not.

This is a great collection. Exactly what I like in short stories. If you like weird stories about weird women having weird experiences, you should read this.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 2 Comments

Breasts and Eggs

My TOB reading continues with Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami and translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd. It’s a long book, maybe the longest on the list this year, and I think it could have done with some trimming, but I mostly liked it.

The book is in two parts, both narrated by a writer named Natsuko and both addressing the meaning and experience of womanhood. In the first part, Natsuko, who lives in Tokyo, is playing host to her sister, Makiko, and 12-year-old niece, Midoriko. Makiko, a hostess in a bar in Osaka, has come to Tokyo to look into getting breast implants, and so there’s a lot of talk in this part of the book about women’s bodies and their feelings about their bodies. As Makiko expresses discontent with the shape and color of her nipples, all altered by childbirth, Midoriko, who has recently stopped speaking, writes in her journal about her own relationship with her body at this difficult age. It’s all as awkward as you might imagine. Natsuko muses over her life as well, but these sections feel like distractions from Midoriko and Makiko.

The second part, set years later, focuses more on Natsuko. At this point, she’s published a book and is working on her next one. And she’s trying to make a decision about whether to have a child. Natsuko is asexual, and so she’s researching methods of artificial insemination, which is possible but not easily available for single women in Japan. Her questions put her in the orbit of adult children of sperm donors, which gets her thinking about the ethics of having a child with a unknown or uninvolved father — or even of having a child at all. Her friends all have their own views about motherhood, which they share, mostly without knowing what Natsuko is considering.

The two sections of the book are barely connected. It feels almost like two books. The characters and the emphasis on womanhood is the same, but even the style is different. The first part has two voices and meanders quite a lot. The second offers other voices through Natsuko’s conversations with friends, but it feels much more like Natsuko’s own story. Her friends and colleagues are there to illuminate her decision making.

Rebecca noted in her review that the second (and longer) part of the book was a disappointment after the first. I had the opposite experience. Although I could appreciate what Kawakami was doing in the first half, the second held my interest much more. I think what I liked was getting inside the head of someone having to make such a difficult choice and doing it entirely on her own. It’s not as if everything she does is about potential motherhood — she also has a lot to think about involving her career — but it’s always there, her secret obsession, and every encounter seems to feel her thinking. I liked the interiority of it, I think. It felt very true to me.

Still, it is longer than it needed to be, so it’s not at the top of my TOB list, and I’ll be surprised to see it go far because I think the bifurcated nature of makes it feel uneven in a way that either half on its own would not.

My next TOB book will be Shuggie Bain, which I just was able to get from the library. I’m still on the very long waitlist for Memorial and Leave the World Behind. And the library doesn’t have Telephone at all, so that may be as far as I get with TOB reading, although the digital queues sometimes surprise me. So we’ll see.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 8 Comments

The Tortoise and the Hare

This 1954 novel by Elizabeth Jenkins focuses on the disastrous marriage of Imogen and Evelyn Gresham. Imogen is beautiful and amiable, but, it appears, kind of useless to everyone in her household. She tries, but when she does, she ends up being an annoyance, especially to her son, Gavin. Evelyn, a prominent barrister, spends a lot of his time in London and is increasingly coming to depend on a neighbor, Blanche Silcox.

Blanche is in her 50s, much closer to Evelyn’s age than Imogen, and while not attractive, she is likable, and very much a doer. She drives the car, packs the picnic lunch, makes the arrangements for whatever needs to get done, and she’s game to go fishing and whatever else her friends are interested in. In a way, she’s just the kind of person who, as an overweight middle-aged single lady, I could relate to or at least aspire to be.

Yet this book worked on me in that I felt horrible for Imogen the entire time. For one thing, there’s every reason to believe that Imogen could do better, could be a doer herself. Her best friend, Cecil, sets a good example for being independent but also capable of relationships. And Imogen herself forms several close friendships with people who genuinely like her and are distressed at how she’s being swept aside. Perhaps her beauty is beguiling them, but I don’t think so. She genuinely doesn’t seem to understand what has caused everything to go so wrong. I think she’s just never had to be a doer in the way Blanche is.

Although the book treats Blanche as in interloper, I could see her perspective too. She’s in her 50s, has never been married, is not very attractive, and is enjoying what is likely to be a rare bit of male attention. I can imagine appreciating the friendship and then having it get out of hand. I think, on balance, she’s in the wrong. But Evelyn is more in the wrong. He’s the one who keeps relying on her, telling her his plans and problems. He could easily cool it, especially after his Imogen starts to express distress at his close friendship with Blanche.

I am still puzzling over the ending, which is sweet but strange. It turns on the fast that Imogen is not the only character who feels neglected and pushed aside. Gavin’s best friend, Tim, is similarly neglected by his family. And, at the end of the book, he provides just a little bit of hope that Imogen can find a path forward. It seems entirely unlikely, but I want to believe in it because I want to see neglected people find a place. And so I’m choosing to ignore the implausibility and enjoy the possibility.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 6 Comments

A Children’s Bible

The last book I read by Lydia Millet, Sweet Lamb of Heaven, was a sort-of thriller that never quite gave in to actually being a thriller (and was therefore not quite as good as it should have been). A Children’s Bible is similar is that it’s about an apocalypse but throws in a bunch of other stuff to make it seem more profound or something. Like Sweet Lamb of Heaven, it’s an engaging book but I don’t think it is quite as profound as it’s trying to be. Or, rather, the profound point it’s trying to make is enough without adding more to it. Or something.

Anyway, the book is about a group of families who’ve all rented a lake house together. The kids, mostly young teenagers, are left mostly to their own devices, so much so that they make a game out of trying to keep the others from knowing which parents go with which kids. They’re on their own, basically. For a while, they even go off on their own separate camping adventure.

All the while, Jack — the little brother of Eve, the book’s narrator — is reading a children’s book of Bible stories. And so he decides to start following Noah’s example and rescue a bunch of animals from what he assumes is immanent environmental collapse. When a storm hits the house and knocks out all power, Jack’s predictions seem justified. And more disaster ensures and the kids are even more on their own.

The whole thing seems to be about the failure of the current adult generation to properly take care of the next generation and the world they will inherit. In other words, we’ve left them on their own and will continue to do so. That’s what happens all through the book. It’s all exaggerated, but it’s very much the point. And, mostly, the kids figure things out, although they have to deal with some very serious tragedy as they do so. Still, the adventure tale is kind of fun to follow.

On top of the environmental parable are the biblical allusions. Most of these are obvious, like Noah and the ark. And sometimes they are pretty funny, as when a couple of people go to the top of the hill to get some ground rules from the owner of the place where they’re staying. And there are some interesting conversations, such where Jack tries to work out what the trinity is, without actually believing in God. This is where I think the book is trying to be really profound without really getting there. The theology that Jack develops is entirely earthbound, yet Millet has all these Bible-echoed events happening around them in a way that feels too coincidental to be real. Maybe the idea is that these kinds of things happen in the absence of God and we reach for God as a way of making meaning. And that is pretty interesting. But I felt like Millet pulled back from really examining the idea. Despite the title, the understanding of the Bible the children develop is rarely made central.

Or maybe my brain just can’t take subtlety these days.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Braiding Sweetgrass

A lot of the conversation about people and the planet centers on how we’ve done the Earth wrong, how nature would be better off without humanity wrecking everything. And indeed we’ve done a lot of wrecking. But in Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer presents a vision of humanity as part of nature, a necessary part with a responsibility to play our own role in making Earth a better place for all forms of life, including human life.

The subtitle of the book — Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledges, and the Teachings of Plants — sums up her approach. Kimmerer is a botanist and a member of the Potawatomi nation, and she brings both the traditional knowledge passed down among various native communities and the scientific understandings to questions of how people and plants can live well together.

The book is made up of a series of essays, most of which look at a different aspect of nature — an overgrown pond; how the corn, beans, and squash grow together; the way lichen develop — and consider what we can learn from her observations about the interaction between species, including the human species. Sometimes she shares traditional stories, such as the fall of Skywoman to Turtle Island. Other times, she shares personal stories, such as her effort to make maple syrup with her daughters. And sometimes, she plays with form, as in her account of a student’s scientific study of the effects of harvesting on sweetgrass growth.

The lesson of this last piece, titled “Mishkos Kenomagwen: The Teachings of Grass,” is one that will stick to me, which I think shows my own bias toward the scientific method. In it, Kimmerer’s student, Lena, examines how two different indigenous methods of harvesting affect the growth of sweetgrass. What she learns is that it’s not the method that matters so much as the fact that the sweetgrass is harvested. Both plots are more healthy than the un-harvested control group. There is a place for us on the planet. But, both harvesting methods involve taking only half the grass, a practice that Kimmerer notes seemed wasteful to European colonizers when they encountered it. Yet, today, sweetgrass grows best in areas adjacent to indigenous communities that have maintained the practice of making sweetgrass baskets.

I found this message hopeful. We can find a way to coexist with plants and animals. However, I also found myself asking what that looks like for me, living in a condo outside a major city. I don’t have a place (not even a balcony) to plant my own garden and nurture my own plants. And, if I’m being honest, I wouldn’t want to if I did. When I lived on a farm, I rarely could maintain much interest in gardening. I’ll never say never — who knows what I might take an interest in in the future — but I don’t see myself spending large amounts of time digging in the dirt.

So what can I do? I think, for now, the answer lies making observations and asking questions, considering where what I buy and what I eat comes from. I’ve done this with meat for a long time, and to a lesser extent with fruits and vegetables. Not so much with other things. The world being as it is, I’m not sure it’s possible to consume perfectly, in a way that is perfectly respectful of the planet. But there’s something to be said for at least acknowledging where the things we consume come from. And I think that’s largely what Kimmerer is interested in — learning to pay attention, to be thoughtful, to engage in what Kimmerer calls the “Honorable Harvest”:

The Honorable Harvest asks us to give back, in reciprocity, for what we have been given. Reciprocity helps resolve the moral tension of taking a life by giving in return something that sustains the ones who sustain us. One of our responsibilities as human people is to find ways to enter into reciprocity with the more-than-human world. We can do it through gratitude, through ceremony, through land stewardship, science, art, and in everyday acts of practical reverence.

Posted in Nonfiction | 8 Comments

Sharks in the Time of Saviors

This novel by Kawai Strong Washburn is another solid entry in the 2021 Tournament of Books. It’s not one I’d put at the top of my list when Piranesi, Transcendent Kingdom, and The Vanishing Half are in the running, but it’s also a book about which I have no particular complaints.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a family story, with most of the action focused on the three children in the family: oldest son Dean, who becomes a basketball star; middle child and only daughter Kaui, who feels continually overlooked despite her gifts as a scientist; and Nainoa (Noa), who can (maybe?) perform miracles. As you can imagine, it’s Noa’s gifts that get the family spotlight, if not the narrative one. The legend of Noa began when he was a small child who fell from a boat and was rescued by a shark. Eventually, he shows signs of being able to heal people, but the nature of the gift is unclear and unpredictable.

Part of the book’s genius is that it doesn’t really focus on Noa. He’s just one of the three siblings, who, along with their mother, narrate the story of how they grew up, left Hawaii to start their own lives on the mainland, and then, well, went through all the things that come with growing up. In a lot of respects, it’s a typical, well-crafted literary family novel.

The fact that the characters are Hawaiian adds some elements that felt fresh and interesting to me without necessarily feeling like they are there to educate white readers about Hawaiian culture. For instance, Kaui likes to dance the hula, and Washington alludes to its spiritual roots but doesn’t explain it. It’s part of the characters’ lives, and that’s enough to know. There are probably aspects of the spiritualism in the book that went over my head, but that’s ok. I never felt lost or left out. Similarly, the characters, when narrating their chapters, use enough Hawaiian dialect for it to feel of a specific place (that is not mine), but not so much that I couldn’t understand them.

All that said, it did not exactly bowl me over, mostly because of the degree to which it’s a typical literary family novel. A very good one, but not one I’m likely to still be thinking about a few months from now.

Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

Earthlings

As a child, Natsuki felt so out of place with her family that she escaped in a world of fantasy in which she had magical powers given to her by a stuffed hedgehog from the planet Popinpobopia. Her cousin, Yuu, who she saw on a family vacation each year, joined her in this fantasy, declaring himself an alien, and the two decided that the only thing to do was to get married and find his spaceship so they could escape to Popinpobopia.

The premise of Earthlings by Sayaka Murata and translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori may sound light and fun, but it’s a dark story indeed. For one thing, what Natsuki wants to escape is more than typical pre-teen awkwardness. Her mother criticizes her at every turn, no matter what she does, and when a popular teacher at school begins abusing her, her mother says she’s not attractive enough to get his attention and scolds her for being late coming home from school. Magic powers and an alien home are her way of imagining something different for herself.

That imagining brings with it a whole new set of rules, different from those of society, and eventually leads Natsuki into a marriage that involves its own rules, kept secret from anyone who wouldn’t understand.

Natsuki narrates her own story, and although as readers we can see where she doesn’t have a good grip on reality, her choice of a different reality makes sense, even when the consequences are terrible. Why would she want to live in a word that has treated her so cruelly, and why wouldn’t she decide the rules that keep society running smoothly aren’t necessary? Yet, at times, she wants to figure out how to live as an ordinary human — to be “brainwashed” and forget who she is so she can happily fulfill her duties in the societal “factory” for doing work and making babies.

I liked that this book went in directions that I didn’t expect. It’s clear early on that things are likely to go badly for Natsuki, at least for a while, but there’s reason to think maybe she’ll find some way to get along ok in world, following her own rules. But it’s also clear that the call of the “factory” is loud and will be difficult to silence. Ultimately, silencing it requires an even bigger break with society’s rules that I anticipated, and the story gets darker and weirder right up until the end.

Posted in Fiction | 8 Comments